Month: June 2009

Fascism and the Future of America

Many commentators, including me, have said that our government is either fascistic or well on its way to being fascistic. What I mean when I refer to fascism in America — and what most commentators mean — is this:

[A] system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism.

The central point is the scope of government power, which in recent months has gone from big to bigger, with the threat of becoming biggest.

Whether the United States has, at last, descended into full-blown fascism (as defined above) is less important a question than whether and how we might ascend to a better place. I will visit the possible future after assessing our present condition and its causes.

FASCISM OR SOFT DESPOTISM?

Soft despotism is simply a more polite term than fascism (or socialism) for pervasive government control of our affairs:

Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by “a network of small complicated rules” might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called ‘hard despotism’) in the sense that it is not obvious to the people. Soft despotism gives people the illusion that they are in control, when in fact they have very little influence over their government. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Soft despotism is “soft” only in that citizens aren’t dragged from their houses at night and executed for imaginary crimes against the state — though they are hauled into court for not wearing seatbelts, for smoking in bars, and for various other niggling offenses to the sensibilities of nanny-staters.

Despite the absence of arbitrary physical punishment, soft despotism is despotism, period. It can be nothing but despotism when the state holds sway over your paycheck, your retirement plan, your medical care, your choice of associates, and thousands of other details of your life — from the drugs you may not buy to the kind of car you can’t drive, from where you can build a house to the features that your house must include.

“Soft despotism,” in other words, is too soft a term for the regime under which we live. I therefore agree with Tom Smith: “Fascism” is a good descriptor of our present condition, so I’ll continue to use it.

THE CAUSES OF OUR PRESENT CONDITION

In spite of my preference for “fascism” to describe our present system of governance, I do concede an advantage to Tocqueville’s usage: It suggests the mechanism by which we got to where we are, that is, “overrun by ‘a network of small complicated rules’.” (Well, the rules aren’t small, but we are overrun by a network of them.) By “we” I don’t mean to imply concerted action on the part of the whole populace. There is a more insidious mechanism at work, which I call the interest-group paradox:

Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
  • Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
  • Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
  • Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
  • Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
  • Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
  • Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons….

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is that millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs….

It is the interest-group paradox which has brought us to our present condition. Since the advent of American fascism in the New Deal, both of the major parties have vied for votes by promising more things to more interest groups. Many interest groups have been mollified, if not satisfied, but most of their members — not to mention the vast, silent minority of unrepresented voters — have in fact been made worse off because the price of their mollification is the mollification of other interest groups.

Thus we have become freighted with massive tax and regulatory burdens. The cumulative effect of the twin burdens is astoundingly large, and is likely to grow under the present regime:

Had the economy of the U.S. not been deflected from its post-Civil War course [by the advent of the regulatory-welfare state around 1900], GDP would now be more than three times its present level…. If that seems unbelievable to you, it shouldn’t: $100 compounded for 100 years at 4.4 percent amounts to $7,400; $100 compounded for 100 years at 3.1 percent amounts to $2,100. Nothing other than government intervention (or a catastrophe greater than any we have known) could have kept the economy from growing at more than 4 percent.

What’s next? Unless Obama’s megalomaniac plans are aborted by a reversal of the Republican Party’s fortunes, the U.S. will enter a new phase of economic growth — something close to stagnation. We will look back on the period from 1970 to 2008 [when GDP rose at an annual rate of 3.1 percent] with longing, as we plod along at a growth rate similar to that of 1908-1940, that is, about 2.2 percent. Thus:

  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent through 2108, it will be 58 percent lower than if we plod on at 3.1 percent.
  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent for through 2108, it will be only 4 percent of what it would have been had it continued to grow at 4.4 percent after 1907.

The latter disparity may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 3.3 percent of the value it had attained 201 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 201 years ago. But vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time. We have every reason to believe in a sustained growth rate of 4.4 percent, as against one of 2.2 percent, because we have experienced both.

These numbers are only a proxy for the loss of liberty associated with the massive growth of government in the U.S. Economic stagnation is the inevitable outcome of punitive taxes and burdensome regulations, all adopted in the name of one or another “good” cause. Those who cannot stand to see others rise above them are doomed to suffer the consequences of leveling, unless they happen to be co-conspirators in the erection of the fascistic state (or whatever you want to call it).

ANOTHER VIEW OF HOW WE GOT HERE, AND WHERE WE’RE HEADED

James V. DeLong, in a recent article (“The Coming of the Fourth American Republic,The American, April 9, 2009), advances a similar view as to the causes of our present condition:

[T[he New Deal ... radically revised the role of government. The process of economic growth was tumultuous, and the losers and dislocated were constantly appealing against the national political commitment to “let us do.” The crisis of the Great Depression provided a great opportunity, and it was seized. Starting in the 1930s, the theoretical limitations on the authority of governments—national or state—to deal with economic or welfare issues were dissolved, and in the course of fighting for this untrammeled power governments eagerly accepted responsibility for the functioning of the economy and the popular welfare.

...Remaining limits on governmental authority were eliminated by the dialectic of the civil rights revolution, in which the federal power over commerce was expanded to meet moral imperatives, and the new standards were then fed back into regulation of commerce.

Inherent in the expansion of governmental power was the complicated question of how this unbridled power would be exercised. As the reach of any institution expands, especially anything as cumbersome as a government, it becomes impossible for the institution as a whole to exercise its power. Delegation to sub-units is necessary: to agencies, legislative committees and subcommittees, even private groups.

The obvious issue is how these subunits are controlled and directed. The theoretical answer had been provided by the Progressive movement (the real one of the early 20th century, not the current faux version). Much of the Progressive movement’s complaint was that special interests, often corporate, captured the governmental process, and its prescriptions were appeals to direct democracy or to administrative independence and expertise on the theory that delegation to technocrats could achieve the ideal of “the public interest.”

The real-world answer imposed by the New Deal and its progeny turned out to be special interest capture on steroids. Control comes to rest with those with the greatest interest or the most money at stake, and the result was the creation of a polity called “the Special Interest State” or, in Cornell University Professor Theodore Lowi’s terms, “Interest Group Liberalism.” Its essence is that various interest groups seize control over particular power centers of government and use them for their own ends.

It is this combination of plenary government power combined with the seizure of its levers by special interests that constitutes the polity of the current Third American Republic. The influence of “faction” and its control had been a concern since the founding of the nation, but it took the New Deal and its acolytes to decide that control of governmental turf by special interests was a feature, not a bug, a supposedly healthy part of democratic pluralism.

In DeLong's analysis, the First American Republic, which lasted until the Civil War, was  the "alliance-of-[S]tates polity.” In the Second American Republic, following the victory of the Unionist cause in the Civil War,

sovereignty belong[ed] to the nation first and the [S]tate second, and … the nation rather than the [S]tate claim[ed] a citizen’s primary loyalty…. The shift [from the First Republic] was traumatic and took decades to complete, but eventually the [S]tates became largely instruments of federal policy, except for a few areas in which conformity is unnecessary or special interests have managed to preserve [S]tate autonomy for their own purposes.

What lies beyond the Third Republic’s special-interest state? According to DeLong, it goes like this:

This Third Republic has had a good run. It was wobbling in the late 1970s, but got bailed out by a run of good luck—Reagan; the fall of the USSR; the computer and information revolution; the rise of the Asian Tigers and the “BRICs”; the basic dynamism and talent of the American people—that kept the bicycle moving and thus upright.

It could continue. It is characteristic of political arrangements that they go on long after an observer from Mars might think that surely their defects are so patent that they have exhausted their capacity for survival…. The culture, the people, are astonishingly creative and productive, and may demonstrate a capacity to keep the bicycle moving faster than the demands of the Special Interest State can throw sand in the gears.

But it is more likely that the Special Interest State has reached a limit.

This may seem a dubious statement, at a time when the ideology of total government is at an acme, but it is not unusual for decadent political arrangements to blaze brightly before their end. Indeed, the total victory of the old arrangements may be crucial to bringing into being the forces that will overthrow it. In some ways, the grip of the aristocracy on 18th-century France tightened in the decades leading up to 1789, and the alliance-of-states idea could have lasted a while longer had the Confederacy not precipitated the crisis. So the utter triumph of the Special Interest State over the past 15 years, and particularly in the recent election, looks like the beginning of its end.

A catalogue of its insoluble problems includes:

Sheer size. The usual numbers concerning the size of government in the United States are that the Feds spend about 20 percent of GNP and other levels of government at least another 16 percent. These do not reflect the impact of tax provisions, regulations, or laws, however, so an accurate estimate of how much of the national economy is actually disposed of by the government is impossible. Whatever it is, it is growing apace, and the current administration is determined to increase it considerably.

Responsibility. As the government has grown in size and reach, it has justified its claims to power by accepting ever more responsibility for the economy and society. Failure will result in rapid loss of legitimacy and great anger…. And as the government’s reach extends, any chance that it will meet its self-proclaimed responsibilities declines.

Lack of any limiting principles. There is no limit on the areas in which special interests will now press for action, nothing that is regarded as beyond the scope of governmental responsibility and power. Furthermore, special interests are not limited, cynically trying to get an undeserved economic edge or subsidy…. Inevitably, special interests try to convert themselves into moral entitlements to convince others to agree to their claims. The problem is that many have convinced themselves, which means that no half loaf satisfies. The grievance remains sharp, and compromise immoral….

Conflicts. The Special Interest State could get along quite well when it simply nibbled at the edges of the society and economy, snipping off a benefit here and there, and when the number of victorious interests was limited. But the combination of moral entitlement, multiplication of claimants, and lack of limits on each and every claim is throwing them into conflict, and rendering unsustainable the ethic of the logrolling alliances that control it.

The guiding principle is that no member of the alliance will challenge the claims of any fellow member. But this principle has a limit, in that unlimited claims cannot help but impinge eventually on each other….

We are in a crisis of legitimacy. The concept of legitimacy, the right to rule, is the single most important factor in political life. The particulars of how it is gained and lost are infinitely varied, according to the culture and history of the polity….

In the United States, legitimacy is conferred by elections, but it is not total. Through the ages, the basic question mark about democracy as a form of government has been that 51 percent of the electorate can band together to oppress the minority—“the tyranny of the majority” is a valid concern. To address it, the United States has a formal written Constitution to guarantee basic rights, but it also has an unwritten constitution that sets limits on how far the winners can push their victories….

Over the past few years, political winners have become increasingly aggressive, culminating in President Obama’s recent “We won” as an assertion of an unlimited mandate. Losers have become increasingly restive, ready to attack the legitimacy of the winners’ victory….

[I]f each party is regarded by the other as a principle-free alliance of special interests, eager to claim the government so as to loot the other side, then a large chunk of legitimacy is lost. All that remains of that concept depends on the government’s ability to deliver overall economic prosperity and national defense, and if the rulers falter in either of these realms, they will receive no slack. Nor should they.

Given these trajectories, and the lack of any mechanisms for altering them, it is hard to see how the polity of the Third Republic can continue, and, as former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Herbert Stein said: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The question is whether the landing will be hard or soft….

[I]t is difficult to see any self-correcting mechanisms in the Special Interest State. Quite the reverse; the incentives all seem to be pushing the accelerator rather than the brake….

So what will the Fourth American Republic look like, and how will it come about? The answers are shrouded in the mists of a highly plastic future, and depend to a large extent on the outcome of the current economic crisis. If that grows severe, the change will be quick and explosive. As noted, an American government that presides over a depression will immediately lose the Mandate of Heaven—the Lady will reclaim the sword.

If this immediate crisis is alleviated, then change may have to await the next one, which will certainly come as more and more sand gets thrown in the gears of the Special Interest State and the bicycle eventually stops….

Two possibilities for change seem most promising. The first is a third political party that explicitly repudiates the present course and requires that its members eschew the legitimacy of the Special Interest State. This would require a certain almost religious fervor, but the great tides of history and politics are always religious in nature, so that is no bar.

This second would be more bottom-up. The Constitution has a residue of the original alliance-of-[S]tates polity that has never been used. Two-thirds of the [S]tate legislatures can force Congress to call a constitutional convention, and the results of that enterprise can then be ratified by three-quarters of the [S]tates. So reform efforts could start at the grassroots and coalesce around [S]tates until two-thirds of them decide to march on the Capitol….

IS THERE LIFE BEYOND FASCISM?

In my view, the Third Republic is unlikely to end soon, unless:

  • Obama’s “stimulus” policies — including his efforts to nationalize a large part of the auto industry and all of the health-care industry — fail spectacularly (e.g., we slip deeper into recession, there is a massive backlash against health-care nationalization).
  • Obama continues to follow the path of accommodation and appeasement in foreign and defense policy, and the United States suffers a devastating setback (e.g., a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or worse). (The setback need not be a direct result Obama’s policies; it would nevertheless be perceived as such.)
  • One of the preceding occurs on the watch of Obama’s successor — presumably a Democrat, if Obama doesn’t fall on his sword.

Absent a débâcle, the special-interest state will not run its course until some of its main constituencies turn from cooperation to conflict — which they will do when their collective greed for an ever-larger share of an ever-weakening economy turns them against each other.

There is a temptation — perhaps born of conflict-avoidance or a fear of seeming callous — to hope against débâcle and for a graceful dénouement. But there will be no graceful dénouement, just a long, messy descent into harder times, harder despotism, and perhaps even subjugation by an coalition of opportunistic enemies. So, for the sake of my grandchildren, I hope for an early débâcle.

The Principles of Actionable Harm

I prefer — as a minarchistic libertarian (a radical-right-minarchist, to be precise) — an accountable, constrained state to the the condition of anarchy. The latter, in my view, leads to warlordism and thence to despotism. But the state must be held to its proper realm of action, namely, dispensing justice and defending the nation. Its purpose in doing those things — and the sole justification for its being — is to protect negative rights (including property rights) and civil society. Specifically:

1. The state should not act — or encourage action by private entities — except as it seeks to deter, prevent, or remedy an actionable harm to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness (hereinafter “liberty”).

2. An actionable harm to liberty is one that

a. arises (or would arise) from the commission of an overt act by any person or entity, domestic or foreign; and

b. contravenes (or would contravene) socially evolved norms of behavior that are encoded in law; and

c. inflicts (or would is inflict) actual harm on a person or persons — as opposed to feelings (e.g., hatred, envy) that may arise from one’s personal disapproval or jealousy of another person’s  actions, success, etc. (Actual harm may include such things as stress, fear, and loss of privacy, when deliberately inflicted upon a person.)

3. Except in the case of punishment for an actionable harm, it is also an actionable harm to bar an adult (as that term is generally understood by society) from

a. expressing his views regarding societal norms and governmental acts (voice); or

b. voluntarily move to a place of his choosing (exit).

(Having voice doesn’t mean getting your own way. Nor are you deprived of exit if you choose neither to leave nor to acquire the wherewithal to leave.)

4. An actionable harm to liberty may be immediate (as in the case of murder) or credibly threatened (as in the case of a conspiracy to commit murder). But actionable harms extend beyond those that are immediate or credibly threatened. They also result from actions by the state that strain and sunder the bonds of trust that make it possible for a people to coexist civilly, through the mutual self-restraint that arises from voluntarily evolved social norms. The use of state power has deeply eroded such norms. The result has been to undermine the trust and self-restraint that enable a people to enjoy liberty and its fruits; for example:

  • Affirmative action and other forms of forced racial integration deny freedom of association, prolong racial animosity, impose unwarranted economic harm on those who are guilty of nothing but their skin color, and generally deprive persons of liberty and property without due process of law.
  • The authorization of abortion, which suborns infanticide and invites euthanasia of the infirm and elderly.
  • The legal enshrinement of gay rights leads to the suppression of speech — in the interest of “political correctness” — and the enforcement of reverse discrimination — at the expense of the majority of citizens who have done nothing worse than eschew and condemn a “lifestyle choice” with which they happen to disagree, as should be their right.
  • The cynical efforts of pandering politicians to appeal to the “Latin community” by supporting “amnesties” for illegal immigrants, whose presence imposes heavy economic costs on Americans and further undermines our already strained commitment to limited government.

5. An expression of thought cannot be an actionable harm unless it

a. amounts to defamation; or

b. would directly obstruct governmental efforts to deter, prevent, or remedy an actionable harm (e.g., divulging classified defense information, committing perjury); or

c. intentionally causes or would directly cause an actionable harm (e.g., plotting to commit an act of terrorism, forming a lynch mob); or

d. purposely — through a lie or the withholding of pertinent facts — causes a person to act against self-interest in an economic transaction (e.g., misrepresenting a product, inflating a corporation’s statement of earnings); or

e. purposely — through its intended influence on government — results in what would be an actionable harm if committed by a private entity (e.g., the taking of income from persons who earn it, simply to assuage the envy of those who earn less). (The remedy for such harms should not be the suppression or punishment of the harmful expressions; the remedy should be the enactment and enforcement of restrictions on the power of government.)

6. With those exceptions, a mere statement of fact, belief, opinion, or attitude cannot be an actionable harm. Otherwise, those persons who do not care for the facts, beliefs, opinions, or attitudes expressed by other persons would be able to stifle speech they find offensive merely by claiming to be harmed by it. And persons who claim to be offended by the superior income or wealth of other persons would be entitled to recompense from those other persons. (Those who claim harm because they are offended by the speech or wealth of others fail to understand that such claims can be reciprocated by those whose speech they would suppress or whose wealth they would confiscate.)

7. It cannot be an actionable harm to commit a private, voluntary act of omission (e.g., the refusal of social or economic relations for reasons of personal preference), other than a breach of contract or fiduciary responsibility. Nor can it be an actionable harm to commit a private, voluntary act which does nothing more than arouse resentment, envy, or anger in others. It is incompatible with liberty for the state to judge, punish, or attempt to influence private, voluntary acts that are not otherwise actionable harms.

8. By the same token, it is incompatible with liberty for the state to judge, punish, or attempt to influence private, voluntary acts of commission which have undesirable but avoidable consequences. For example:

  • Government prohibition of smoking on private property is anti-libertarian because non-smokers could choose not to frequent or work at establishments that allow smoking.
  • Other government restrictions on the use of private property (e.g., laws that bar restrictive covenants or mandate “equal accommodation”) are anti-libertarian because they (1) diminish property rights and (2) discourage ameliorating activities (e.g., the evolution away from cultural behaviors that play into racial prejudice, investments in black communities and black-run “accommodations”).
  • Tax-funded subsidies for retirement and health care are anti-libertarian because they discourage hard work, saving, and other prudent habits — habits that would lead to less dependence on government, were those habits encouraged.

9. It is also incompatible with liberty for the state to make and enforce distinctions among individuals that have the effect of penalizing some persons because of their age, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicity, religion, income, or wealth. (This is also a way of saying that the playing field ought to be level for straight, white, religious, Anglo-Saxon, males under the age of 40 — or a person having any of those traits — and that the possessors of material means should not be penalized because of their position relative to the poorest among us.)

10. The proper role of the state is to enforce the preceding principles. In particular,

a. to remain neutral with respect to evolved social norms, except where those norms deny voice or exit, as with the systematic disenfranchisement or enslavement of particular classes of persons; and

b. to foster economic freedom (and therefore social freedom) by ensuring open trade within the nation and (to the extent compatible with national security) open trade with (but selective immigration from) other nations; and

c. to ensure free expression of thought, except where such expression is tantamount to an actionable harm (as in a conspiracy to commit murder or a campaign of harrassment); and

d. to see that the laws which protect liberty are enforced swiftly and surely, with favoritism toward no person or class of persons; and

e. to defend liberty against its enemies, foreign and domestic.

The principles of actionable harm aren’t rules for making everyone happy, they are rules for ensuring that each of us is able to pursue happiness without impinging on the happiness of others.

The principles of actionable harm should apply only to citizens and legitimate residents of the United States. Those who would do us harm must be treated differently — often summarily and harshly — if we are to retain our liberty.

Utilitarianism vs. Liberty

THE UTILITARIAN WORLD VIEW

A utilitarian will favor a certain policy if a comparison of its costs and benefits shows that the benefits exceed the costs — even though the persons bearing the costs are unlikely to be the persons who accrue the benefits. That is so because utilitarians are accountants of the soul, who believe (implicitly, at least) that it is within their power to balance the unhappiness of those who bear costs against the happiness of those who accrue benefits. The precise formulation, according to John Stuart Mill, is “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II, Section 16.)

Consider, for example, the relationship between guns and crime, in particular, John Lott’s controversial finding that

allowing adults to carry concealed weapons significantly reduces crime in America. [Lott] supports this position by an exhaustive tabulation of various social and economic data from census and other population surveys of individual United States counties in different years, which he fits into a large multifactorial mathematical model of crime rate. His published results generally show a reduction in violent crime associated with the adoption by states of laws allowing the general adult population to freely carry concealed weapons….

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of current research and data on firearms and violent crime, including Lott’s work, and found that “there is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.” James Q. Wilson dissented from that opinion, and while accepting the committee’s findings on violent crime in general, he argued that all of the Committee’s own estimates confirmed Lott’s finding that right-to-carry laws had an effect on murder rate.[19]

Referring to the research done on the topic, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that while most researchers support Lott’s findings that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime, some researchers doubt that concealed carry laws have any impact on violent crime, saying however that “Mr. Lott’s research has convinced his peers of at least one point: No scholars now claim that legalizing concealed weapons causes a major increase in crime.”[20] As Lott critics Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III pointed out: “We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.”[21]

Suppose Lott is right. If more concealed weapons lead to less crime, then the economically efficient policy is for governments to be more lenient in the issuance of concealed-weapon permits. The cost of concealed weapons is borne by the persons who own the weapons (and, presumably, carry them). The benefit of allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons is diffuse, in that it flows not only to persons who carry weapons but also to persons who don’t carry weapons — because of the uncertainty (in the minds of criminals) as to whether a prospective victim is carrying a weapon. The benefit also flows to law-enforcement agencies (and thence to taxpayers)  — in jurisdictions that readily allow concealed-carry — because of lower crime rates.

In sum, the aggregate benefits of concealed-carry outweigh the aggregate costs of concealed-carry, which is all that a true utilitarian needs to know. The bottom line — for the utilitarian — is that concealed-carry permits ought to be issued readily.

Moreover, strict utilitarianism requires that all decisions — not just governmental ones — must yield “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For example, if I fail to take your happiness into account when I buy a new car, I might make you less happy by my acquisition (because it makes you envious). And, in the utilitarian calculus, your unhappiness might outweigh my happiness. Ergo, less happiness altogether.

The foregoing example make it easy to see how modern “liberalism,” with its strong appeal to envy (among other unattractive traits), is an outgrowth of utilitarianism. (For more in that vein, see “Inventing Liberalism.”)

UTILITARIANISM VS. LIBERTY

A libertarian* looks at governmental and personal decisions quite differently. A libertarian would say that self-defense is in the realm of personal decision-making, and should not be subject to the utilitarian calculus (which, at any rate, also is invalid for legitimate governmental decisions). Therefore, according to a libertarian, the decision to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense belongs to the individual, who (by his decision) accepts responsibility for his actions. The role of the state in the matter is to deter aggressive acts on the part of gun-carriers by (a) making it known that such acts are verboten and (b) prosecuting persons who commit such acts.

The libertarian perspective reveals the disconnect between utilitarianism and liberty. In fact, utilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals. Agreement among various utilitarians about the desirability of a particular course of action signifies nothing more than a shared prejudice about the way the world ought to be.

SUMMATION

The core assumptions of utilitarianism are that

  • the happiness of the whole can be measured (at least roughly, in the mind of the person doing the “measuring”), and
  • individual actions must be tailored to maximize the happiness of the whole, regardless of their effect on the welfare of particular individuals.

Libertarians hold that there is no such thing as the happiness of the whole, and that it is up to each of us to make his own happiness, according to his own lights. Making one’s own happiness doesn’t mean doing one’s own “thing,” regardless of the consequences for others. Thinking libertarians — as opposed to reflexive ones who just want to be left alone — recognize that liberty is “peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.”

At what point does an individual’s pursuit of happiness become truly destructive of the happiness of others? The answer to that question is found in the principle of actionable harm, which I will discuss in my next post (here).

__________

* Libertarianism, by my reckoning, spans anarchism and the two major strains of minarchism: left-minarchism and right-minarchism. The internet-dominant strains of libertarianism (anarchism and left-minarchism) are, in fact, antithetical to liberty because they denigrate civil society. (For more on the fatuousness of  the dominant strains of “libertarianism,” see “On Liberty” and “The Meaning of Liberty.”) The less-common right-minarchist is both a true libertarian and a true conservative.

A Point of Agreement

Timothy Sandefur and I have disagreed about as often as we’ve agreed, despite the fact that both of us are “libertarians.” (Sandefur is, or was, an Objectivist; I am, to use my terminology, a radical-right-minarchist.)

In any event, Sandefur and I have tended to agree about matters of defense and foreign policy. A good case in point is his post of earlier today, “Cato’s foreign policy, don’t speak up for freedom’s defenders,” in which he says:

One thing you can usually expect from the Cato Institute’s foreign policy experts is that America shouldn’t use military force to defend freedom against tyranny in other countries. While I often find myself disagreeing with that position, it’s at least one that reasonable people can take in various cases. What I find much harder to take is the idea that the United States should not even cheer on freedom’s defenders from the sidelines, or speak up for the rights of democracies to do perfectly innocent things. I noted last year Ted Galen Carpenter and Justin Logan making a really deplorable argument that it is somehow “antagonistic” to the People’s Republic of China for Taiwan to seek to change the name of its airline to “Taiwan Airlines” or to put “Taiwan” on its passports. For Carpenter to say that these things are “antagonistic” to the PRC is nothing short of taking the side of a totalitarian communist dictatorship against the perfectly legitimate rights of a democracy that has never for even a minute of its history been governed by the PRC.

Well, here we are again: Logan argues that “President Obama should keep quiet on the subject of Iran’s elections.” Not that the United States should hold off from intervening in any direct or military way—again, a reasonable position—or that the United States should be wary of Mousavi, who is probably not the “moderate” he’s called on CNN. No, Logan’s argument is that the United States should “keep quiet” while a totalitarian theocratic dictatorship sends its masked thugs to shoot and beat demonstrators who seek some minor degree of political freedom. This he characterizes as “narcissism,” and he ridicules the idea of “anoint[ing] from afar one side as the ‘good’”—a word he puts in scare quotes…..

How sad that libertarians, supposedly America’s most consistent defenders of liberty, are so eager to avoid the possibility of military confrontation that they will adopt and even encourage cravenness and appeasement to the egos of totalitarian dictators. We should reject that approach. John Quincy Adams famously said we were “friends of freedom everywhere; defenders only of our own.” We may disagree at times over the second half of that proposition, but we should never waver on the first.

I couldn’t put it better. Sandefur captures the outrage I felt when I read Justin Logan’s post.

Cato, for all of the wisdom it dispenses on economic matters, is institutionally stupid on matters of defense and foreign policy. Cato isn’t alone on the “libertarian” anti-war flank, which mistakes defense for aggression, and bows slavishly toward non-aggression — as if anything other than last-ditch defense is an act of aggression.

There are times when it is necessary to fight in the defense of liberty. Taking a step backward, then, a lack of preparedness can be fatal to liberty. Taking another step backward, a lack of forthrightness toward those who would “bury us” is too easily taken as a sign that we are unwilling and even unprepared to fight. (We were attacked on 9/11, in part, because bin Laden perceived us as “soft” and unwilling to defend ourselves.)

We cannot afford to let acts of tyranny slide by without a peep, nor should we if we are to stand for liberty and against tyranny. Thus Sandefur is exactly right to call out Cato in the matter of the Iranian elections.

There are several issues on which many a “libertarian” shares ground with Leftists. Defense is one of those issues. What I say in “The Media, the Left, and War” also could be said of most “libertarians.” See also “Parsing Political Philosophy,” where I point out the similarity of left-minarchists (a.k.a. left-libertarians) to left-statists (a.k.a. “liberals”).

Finally, I should note that I have taken to putting “libertarian(s)” and “libertarianism” in quotation marks because “libertarianism” — in its internet-dominant strains (anarchist and left-minarchist) — is a recipe for the destruction of civil society, and thence the ascension of a truly oppressive regime. For more on the fatuousness of  the dominant strains of “libertarianism,” see “On Liberty” and “The Meaning of Liberty.”

I have posted before on the obdurate, head-in-the-sand, Chamberlainesque attitude exemplified by Cato and other “libertarian” organizations:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
More Final(?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Thomas Woods and War
“Peace for Our Time”
How to View Defense Spending
More Stupidity from Cato
Anarchistic Balderdash
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace

A Bargain with the Devils of “Liberalism”

I have said many times that government should (a) stay in the marriage business and decline to honor homosexual “marriage,” and (b) reverse Roe v. Wade to allow the criminalization of abortion. My views are distilled here, where I say that

“rights” like abortion and homosexual “marriage” [are] government-imposed social innovations with potentially harmful consequences for civil society. If social custom, as embodied in legislative acts, rejects such things as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” it does so because those things undermine the fabric of society — the bonds of mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint that enable a people to live and work together in peace.

I am still against homosexual “marriage” and abortion, but I am willing to trade my support of government involvement in both matters for the cessation of government action in a multitude of other matters. Now, if I could persuade the other several million opponents of homosexual “marriage” and abortion to do the same, here is the deal we would offer:

We, the nation’s right-minarchists and right-statists, are willing to accept the possibility that some states will allow homosexual “marriage” and abortion. We are willing to do so, and end our attempts to regulate homosexual “marriage” and abortion at the federal level, if you, the nation’s left-minarchists and left-statists, will accede to the following conditions:

  • Eliminate all federal departments, and their functions, excepting justice, defense, state, and treasury.
  • Roll back all regulatory enactments and enabling laws to their status as of 1900.
  • Do the same with the federal tax code.
  • Except for the core federal functions of justice (in truly federal matters), defense, and foreign policy (which ought to serve our defense needs), devolve all federal functions to the States. (“Homeland security” is properly a  defense function, as are matters having to do with veterans’ benefits.)
  • The citizens of each State, through their legislatures and other avenues consistent with republicanism, shall determine questions such as access to marriage (if it remains in the purview of a State) and abortion, as well as such other matters as agricultural policy, regulation of commerce, provision of education, energy policy, justice (intra-State), health care regulation and subsidies, housing subsidies, labor policies, the disposition and use of public lands, urban affairs and transportation (including agreements with neighboring States about the construction and maintenance of highways and other means of transportation), and welfare (including State-level equivalents of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid).

I wouldn’t expect left-minarchists to want States in the driver’s seat on marriage and abortion. Nor are left-statists likely to give up on the idea of pressing every citizen into the same, Washington-dictated mold. But left-minarchists might be attracted by the opportunity for some States to offer their citizens more liberty. And left-statists might be willing to accept certain victory for dictatorial “liberalism” in many States, especially as they hail from the States most likely to give them all the “liberalism” they can stand.

I, for one, would welcome the opportunity to live in a State that rejects homosexual “marriage” and abortion, along with the imprisoning, impoverishing baggage of modern “liberalism.” Surely, there would be at least a dozen to choose from, right off the bat.

Why would I be willing to allow some States to legalize homosexual “marriage” and abortion if I am so strongly against those two things. One way of looking at it is this: The world is never going to be perfect, so you make the best you can of it. In this case, making the best of it allows some States to swim against the tide homosexual “marriage” and abortion.

It is likely that those same States, freed from the shackles of Washington, would take other actions to restore civil society and thus advance liberty. I suspect that the policies of those States would be so popular that other States would follow suit to avoid massive emigration and its result: a fiscal death spiral, à la Michigan.

The Media, the Left, and War

Ralph Peters writes:

The phenomenon of Western and world journalists championing the “rights” and causes of blood-drenched butchers who, given the opportunity, would torture and slaughter them, disproves the notion—were any additional proof required—that human beings are rational creatures. Indeed, the passionate belief of so much of the intelligentsia that our civilization is evil and only the savage is noble looks rather like an anemic version of the self-delusions of the terrorists themselves. And, of course, there is a penalty for the intellectual’s dismissal of religion: humans need to believe in something greater than themselves, even if they have a degree from Harvard. Rejecting the god of their fathers, the neo-pagans who dominate the media serve as lackeys at the terrorists’ bloody altar. (“Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars,” Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009.)

Seems about right to me. As I once said of an American “intellectual,”

He and his ilk cannot satisfy their power-lust in the real world, so they retaliate by imagining a theoretical world of doom. It is as if they walk around under a thought balloon which reads “Take that!”

It is the politics of adolescent rebelliousness:

The Left is in an arrested state of adolescent rebellion: “Daddy” doesn’t want me to smoke, so I’m going to smoke; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to drink, so I’m going to drink; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to have sex, so I’m going to have sex. But, regardless of my behavior, I expect “Daddy” to give me an allowance, and birthday presents, and cell phones, and so on….

Persons of the Left simply are simply unthinking, selfish adolescents who want what they want, regardless of the consequences for others.

And now that they are “in charge,” that’s precisely what they’re doing. Where will it all end? I reflected here on the following passage from an essay by Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Peters has a similar thought:

Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media. [Emphasis added, with glee.] Perceiving themselves as superior beings, journalists have positioned themselves as protected-species combatants. But freedom of the press stops when its abuse kills our soldiers and strengthens our enemies. Such a view arouses disdain today, but a media establishment that has forgotten any sense of sober patriotism may find that it has become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom….

He concludes:

The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.

In closing, we must dispose of one last mantra that has been too broadly and uncritically accepted: the nonsense that, if we win by fighting as fiercely as our enemies, we will “become just like them.” To convince Imperial Japan of its defeat, we not only had to fire-bomb Japanese cities, but drop two atomic bombs. Did we then become like the Japanese of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere? Did we subsequently invade other lands with the goal of permanent conquest, enslaving their populations? Did our destruction of German cities—also necessary for victory—turn us into Nazis? Of course, you can find a few campus leftists who think so, but they have yet to reveal the location of our death camps….

Of all the enemies we face today and may face tomorrow, the most dangerous is our own wishful thinking.

The wishful thinking is for quick, clean wars, and preferably, no wars at all — because we can avoid wars through “dialogue” and “understanding.” Bosh! As Peters says,

The violent, like the poor, will always be with us, and we must be willing to kill those who would kill others.

Moreover, we must be prepared for long, dirty wars. With whom? It doesn’t much matter, as Peters suggests:

It may not be China that challenges us, after all, but the unexpected rise of a dormant power. The precedent is there: in 1929, Germany had a playground military limited to 100,000 men. Ten years later, a re-armed Germany had embarked on the most destructive campaign of aggression in history, its killing power and savagery exceeding that of the Mongols.

Which nation or stateless power will be the next Germany or Japan? We don’t know and can’t know. All we can do — and must do — is prepare for the inevitable rise of the next butcher state.

The question is whether we can survive a political regime that is hell-bent on bread, circuses, and surrender.

Gains from Trade

I’ve been pondering a bunch of recent posts about international trade by Keith Burgess-Jackson. The posts (dated from March 11, 2009, to June 8, 2009) are at KBJ’s eponymous blog. In the posts, KBJ attacks international trade (or some of it), because (in his view) it affects certain aspects of life in the United States.

I’ve read and re-read the various posts, trying to make sense of them. But I have been unable to do so so because, at every turn, I am confronted by flawed logic and unfounded assertions. I’m left in awe at the chutzpah of a tenured associate professor of philosophy (with a law degree, to boot) who commits the kinds of errors for which (I hope) he would chastise his students.

Anyway, to begin at the beginning, there’s this (March 11):

Free trade has been, and will continue to be, a disaster for this country.

A “disaster for this country” would be an event (or a related set or sequence of events) that inflicts unmitigated harm on great masses of Americans. The Great Depression was a “disaster for this country,” as was 9/11. How is “free trade” a “disaster for this country” when, thanks to the lowering of barriers to trade, but not their abandonment (thus “free trade”), millions of Americans now own better automobiles, electronic gadgets, and other goodies than they had access to before “free trade.” Not only that, but they have been able to purchase those goodies to which they had access before “free trade” at lower real prices than in the days before “free trade.” On top of that, millions of Americans make a better living than than they did before “free trade” because of their employment in industries that became stronger or rose up because of “free trade.”

Okay, so KBJ issues a qualified version on March 12:

Dr John J. Ray, my polymathic friend Down Under, replies to my post about free trade. I should clarify my stance. I’m not saying there should be no trade. That would be crazy. I’m saying that we Americans should protect certain of our industries, such as steel and automobiles. Yes, there is a price to be paid for these protectionist measures, but I, like Pat Buchanan, deem it a price worth paying.

Having recognized that “free trade” may be good for many Americans, KBJ now wants to protect certain industries. But why? KBJ doesn’t say. And I’m at a loss to guess the answer. After all, if we protect an industry we are, in effect, subsidizing those who earn a living in that industry, from the loftiest chairman of the board to the lowliest floor sweeper. Why should Americans be forced, for example, to subsidize people who work for GM and Chrysler when “Japanese” auto makers employ Americans who also make cars?  Even if GM and Chrysler were to go out of business, there would still be an American auto industry — one whose “Big Three” would be Ford, Toyota, and Honda. I’m not so sure about Ford, but Toyota, Honda, and other “Japanese” makes have proved more than adequate to the task of delivering well-made autos at reasonable prices.

I would make the same argument even if “Japanese” cars truly were Japanese, from topsail to keel and stem to stern. Even then, it would not be entirely a question of favoring certain Japanese at the expense of certain Americans. It would also be a question of favoring certain Americans (those employed by auto companies of any stripe) over other Americans (those who would prefer Japanese autos for various reasons, not least of which is value for the dollar). KBJ seems to acknowledge as much in a post of March 16, where he gives a bit more ground:

Free trade is efficient, in the sense that it increases (or even maximizes) aggregate material welfare. The key words are “aggregate” and “material.” As for the first of these words, free trade produces losers as well as gainers. The gainers could compensate the losers, but they are not made to do so. I’m concerned about the losers. In other words, I care about justice (how the pie is distributed) as well as efficiency (how big the pie is). As for the second word, there is more to life than material welfare. Free trade has bad effects on valuable nonmaterial things, such as community, culture, tradition, and family. As a conservative, I care very much about these things.

There’s more of the same on March 17:

Here is a video that explains how free trade increases (or even maximizes) aggregate material welfare. Notice that there is no mention of two things that matter to conservatives: (1) how the increase is distributed; and (2) how free trade affects nonmaterial welfare.

KBJ focuses on American losers, but there are many, many American gainers from free trade, as discussed above. Are their communities, cultures, traditions, and families of no import to KBJ? It would seem so. On what basis does he prefer some Americans to others? Or, to put it more crudely, who died and left KBJ, Pat Buchanan, and their ilk in charge of defending the Rust Belt?

And why should we care whether autos and steel are made in the U.S.? Is it a matter of national pride? What price pride? Whatever the price, it seems that KBJ, Pat Buchanan, and their ilk are willing for millions of Americans to pay it.

Maybe it’s a question of national defense — the bogeyman that is so often conjured in relation to our supposed dependence on foreign oil. Just as those “Arabs” might cut off our oil (though to do so would be to risk our wrath and their wealth), perhaps the Russians, Chinese, or Hottentots will someday amass so much military power that they can cut off all our imports, leaving us poor and powerless — inasmuch as we would no longer possess an industrial base to mobilize for war.

So, maybe their reasoning goes like this: America would be (has been?) deprived of significant chunks of its industrial base by the migration of manufacturing overseas (ignoring the fact that auto-making has migrated mainly from one part of the U.S to other parts of the U.S., while the U.S. remains the number 3 steel-making country in the world). And if our industrial base disappears, we won’t be able to mobilize for a prolonged war — one that would require more military stuff than our puny (hah!) industrial base would be capable of emitting. But our industrial base isn’t disappearing, it’s just becoming smaller in relation to our service sector and far less labor-intensive (i.e., more labor-productive) than it used to be (thus the “loss” of manufacturing jobs over time). See, for example, these Federal Reserve graphs of U.S. industrial capacity and production from the mid-1960s to the present. (The main page is here.) In spite of dips related to recessions, the trends are upward.

Getting back to the question of defense, we already have much larger conventional forces and stockpiles of parts and munitions in relation to the forces and stockpiles of our potential enemies than was the case before we entered WWII. If that demanding war is the benchmark for preparedness, then we have plenty of time to convert existing industrial facilities to war production, and to build new war-production facilities. In any event, you would think that the prospect of a major conventional war would become evident in ample time for mobilization, despite the periodic decimation of our intelligence services.

If unpreparedness for a major conventional war is the bogeyman that haunts the dreams of KBJ and company, their real fear can’t be the loss of our industrial base because of “free trade,” inasmuch as we haven’t lost our industrial base and show no signs of doing so. No, their real fear must be the caliber of our political leaders. Sell-outs will sell us out even when we have strong defenses and the wherewithal to build and maintain those defenses, as we have learned in the decades since the Vietnam War, which devastated our resolve to deal with military problems militarily. Those decades were punctuated only briefly by Reagan’s defense buildup, Bush I’s mistakenly truncated Gulf War, and Bush II’s hamstrung war in Iraq. We are now preparing for future wars (not!) and fighting current ones (while retreating) on terms dictated by an obstructive Congress (one of whose members was our new, Chamberlainesque president), an over-reaching Supreme Court, and other Leftists (to call them American Leftists would be an insult to America). But none of that has anything to do with “free trade.”

Returning to the issue at hand, KBJ seems to ignore the fundamental fact of life that human beings try to better their lot in ways that often, and inescapably, result in change. Human beings do want economic progress, and they have proved that they are willing, at times, to pay for in in “nonmaterial ways,” that is, by allowing it do affect “community, culture, tradition, and family.”

But that fact has never kept sentimentalists from decrying the loss of the “good old days.” KBJ’s tune is an old one, a version of which goes “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they seen Paree?”

Perhaps (in KBJ’s view) it was a mistake for early man to have discovered fire-making, which undoubtedly led to new communal alignments, cultural totems, traditions, and even familial relationships. Methinks, in short, that KBJ has been swept away by a kind of self-indulgent romanticism for a past that was not as good as we remember it. (I’ve been there and done that, too.)

If “nonmaterial things” are so important, one wonders why KBJ ever left Michigan. And if he left Michigan for good reasons, as I’m sure he did, why is it bad for others to leave Michigan for the promise of warmth and employment? If “nonmaterial things” are so important, college attendance between ages 18 and 22 ought to be outlawed, for that is where (college) and when (18 to 22 years of age) large portions of the populace lose their attachment to “community, culture, tradition, and family.”

Anyway, how is it that economic dislocation — gradual as it is when an industry shifts its locus from one region to another — devastates “community, culture, tradition, and family”? If there has been any devastation of “community, culture, tradition, and family” in the Rust Belt — where auto- and steel-making once were dominant industries — it has been going on for decades, due to the combined influences of higher education; mobility (as the young seek greener pastures and the old seek warmer climes); the rise of impersonal entertainment and forms of communication (in lieu of family togetherness); and the natural breakdown of old-country cultures and traditions, as generation succeeds generation.

Shifting gears: On March 19, KBJ says this:

Those of you who consider yourselves conservative but support free trade might want to reconsider. The editorial board of the New York Times supports free trade. So does Barack Obama. So do the Clintons. So does Paul Krugman.

KBJ’s (risible) implication seems to be this: Something can’t be good if your political enemies think it’s good; or, you can’t really be a conservative if you agree with certain scurrilous liberals on a particular issue. By such reasoning, I wonder that KBJ can be against “free trade” when its opponents include Leftists:

I’m with Dennis Kucinich on free trade. (March 24)

On March 25, KBJ merely rehashes earlier posts:

There is no mention in this New York Times story of why people are losing their jobs. Can you say “free trade”? Jobs are being outsourced to China and other parts of the world, where labor is cheap. What good are cheap goods if you don’t have a job? Free trade will be the death of the West. A hundred years from now, if the West survives that long, people will look back at this time as the time of idiocy.

There’s more of the same old stuff on March 26, along with a couple of new assertions:

The editorial board of the New York Times is adamantly opposed to “protectionism.” In other words, it adamantly supports free trade. Note the reason given. The board—which is composed of cosmopolitans—is concerned about poor people in other countries. Free trade raises the standard of living for nonAmericans at the expense of Americans, many of whom are suffering terribly as a result of lost jobs, which adversely affects not just them but their families and communities. Free trade is a worldwide leveler of wealth. This is why conservatives (as opposed to libertarians) oppose free trade. In their view, Americans come first. Cosmopolitan progressives and libertarians support free trade, albeit for different reasons. The former support it because it redistributes wealth from rich nations to poor nations. The latter support it because they worship individual liberty. Free trade has been a boon to wealthy American entrepreneurs, who now have a worldwide pool of cheap labor. It has devastated working-class and middle-class Americans.

The notion that “['free trade'] redistributes wealth from rich nations to poor nations” is completely devoid of logical and empirical content. “Free trade” works because there are gains to all participants. If that weren’t the case, Americans wouldn’t buy foreign goods and foreigners wouldn’t buy American goods. Moreover, “free trade” has been a boon to American consumers and workers (though not always the workers KBJ seems to be worried about). To the extent that “wealthy American entrepreneurs” have gained from “free trade,” it’s because they’ve risked their capital to create jobs (in the U.S. and overseas) that have helped people (in the U.S. and overseas) attain higher standards of living. The “worldwide pool of cheap labor” is, in fact, a worldwide pool of willing labor, which earns what it does in accordance with the willingness of Americans (and others) to buy its products.

Finally, on June 8, KBJ says:

Europeans are starting to see the folly of free trade.

Actually, if you read the article, you’ll find that it portrays Europeans as wrong-headedly provincial — just like KBJ and company.

I may have left out a post or two, but I hope that, by now, you get the idea. “Free trade” helps Americans — perhaps not always the Rust-Belt Americans KBJ seems to be fixated on.

It might surprise KBJ to know that everyone’s income can grow, and grow faster, because of trade — not in spite of it. Foreigners earn more now than they used to, in part, because they are employed in more productive pursuits than they were before “globalization.”  The more foreigners earn, the more American-produced products they buy. Many of those same foreigners also help to underwrite our government’s deficits, thus reducing Americans’ taxes.

If “free trade” is such a bad thing, I wonder if KBJ buys anything that’s not made in Texas, where he lives. Trade between the States, after all, is about as “free” as it gets (except when government bans something, of course). Suppose Texas were to be annexed suddenly by Mexico. Would KBJ immediately boycott everything that’s made in the remaining 49 States? Would it have suddently become unclean?

Opposition to “free trade” — of the kind voiced by KBJ and company — is pure, unadulterated, mindless yahooism. It has no more validity than rooting for, say, the University of Texas Longhorns just because you live in Austin (as I do). People who have not the slightest connection with UT can be seen wearing burnt orange (UT’s colors for those of you who are blissfully unaware) and celebrating drunkenly after UT victories. It just makes me want to puke. And so does anti-international trade yahooism, which is like rooting for union-dominated firms like GM and Chrysler, which we are now subsidizing to the nth degree. (I’ll bet that makes KBJ puke.)

Putting an end to “free trade” would make Americans poorer, not richer. And I doubt that it would do anything to halt the natural evolution of “community, culture, tradition, and family” away from the forms sentimentalized by KBJ and toward entirely new but not necessarily inferior forms.

The biggest threat to “community, culture, tradition, and family” lies in the non-evolutionary imposition of new social norms bythe Left. That’s where the ire of KBJ and company should be directed.

Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience

Utilitarianism is sort of under debate in the blogosphere (see here). But all the hifalutin’ philosophising misses the main point about utilitarianism: Those who practice it are arrogant pretenders to omniscience.

The appeal of utilitarianism rests on two mistaken beliefs:

  • There is such a thing as social welfare.
  • Transferring income and wealth from the richer to the poorer enhances social welfare because redistribution helps the poorer more than it hurts the richer.

Having disposed elsewhere of the second belief, I here address the first one.

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, has gone the way of Communism: It is discredited, but many people still cling to it under other names — “social welfare” and “social justice” being perennial favorites among the “liberal” intelligentsia.

How can supposedly rational “liberals” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (unionized employees of GM and Chrysler, urban developers, etc.) cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? There is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

It seems to me that “liberals” (most of them, anyway) reject God because to acknowledge Him would be to admit their own puniness and venality.

Checking In

UPDATED, 08/11/10

About four years ago (at Liberty Corner) I drew on the archives of Dead or Alive? to list a number of erstwhile celebrities who were then alive at the age of 90 or older. Here’s how the list looks today:

Charles Lane 102, George Kennan 101, George Beverly Shea 101, Max Schmeling 99, Eddie Albert 99, Michael DeBakey 99, Luise Rainer 100, Gloria Stuart 100, Dale Messick 98, John Wooden 99, Mitch Miller 99, John Kenneth Galbraith 97, Ernest Gallo 97, John Mills 97, Estée Lauder 97, Al Lopez 97, Karl Malden 97, Art Linkletter 97, Risë Stevens 97, Fay Wray 96, Kitty Carlisle 96, Jane Wyatt 96, Tony Martin 96, Kevin McCarthy 96, Irwin Corey 96, Henri Cartier-Bresson 95, Peter Rodino, Jr. 95, Joseph Barbera 95 ,Jack LaLanne 95, Harry Morgan 95, Herman Wouk 95, Byron Nelson 94, Constance Cummings 94, Lady Bird Johnson 94, Robert Mondavi 94, Sammy Baugh 94, Les Paul 94, Sargent Shriver 94, Eli Wallach 94, Olivia de Havilland 94, Artie Shaw 93, Frankie Laine 93, Ruth Hussey 93, Richard Widmark 93, Robert McNamara 93, Ernest Borgnine 93, Zsa Zsa Gabor 93, Vera Lynn 93, Oleg Cassini 92, Ralph Edwards 92, Lena Horne 92, Ernie Harwell 92, Herbert Lom 92, Patti Andrews 92, William Westmoreland 91, Frances Langford 91, John Profumo 91, Geraldine Fitzgerald 91, Archibald Cox 91, Julia Child 91, Bob Feller 91, Billy Graham 91, Monte Irvin 91, Jane Wyman 90.

For many, many more names, go to “People Alive Over 85” at Dead or Alive?

A New, New Constitution

I have further revised my revision of the Constitution of the United States (earlier version here). The new, new version is below the fold.

Another blogger once said of such efforts that

[a]ll the Constitution really needs is some well-placed “And we mean it!” clauses:

–The Ninth Amendment…and we mean it!

Privileges or Immunities…and we mean it!

–Taking property only for public use…and we mean it!

And so on.

Maybe abolish the well-intentioned but subsequently corrupted Necessary & Proper Clause, clarify the meaning of “regulate” in the Commerce Clause to return it to its intended denotation (i.e., “to make regular,” or “to standardize”) and of “commerce” to “that which is not agriculture or manufacturing” (i.e., trade).

The rest is all bells and whistles.

Au contraire: The devil, as they say, is in the details. The main problem with the Constitution is not what it means but what meanings can be imputed to it because of vagueness and ambiguity. What the Constitution really needs is a lot of loophole-closing and more checks on the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, all of which have subverted and twisted the Constitution‘s intended meanings.

“My” (unitalicized) Constitution (as distinguished from the real Constitution, to which deference is owed but too seldom given) is not only far more specific than the original — and more restrictive of the powers of government — but it also includes more checks on those powers. Specifically, there is this provision in Article V:

A judgment of any court of the United States of America may be revised or revoked by an act of Congress, provided that such any revision or revocation is approved by two-thirds of the members of each house and leads to a result that conforms to this Constitution.

Then there are Articles VII and VIII, Keeper of the Constitution and Conventions of the States, which open thusly:

The responsibility for ensuring that the legislative, executive, and judicial branches adhere to this constitution in the exercise of their respective powers shall be vested in a Keeper of the Constitution. The Keeper may review acts of Congress, the executive branch, and judicial branch that have the effect of making law and appropriating monies.

*    *    *

Delegations of the States shall convene every four years for the purpose of considering revisions to and revocations of acts of the government that is established by this constitution. Such conventions (hereinafter “convention of the States”) may revise and/or revoke any act or acts and/or any holding or holdings, in the sole discretion of a majority of State delegations present and voting.

On top of that, there is Article IX, which authorizes petitions and subsequent elections for the revocation of a broad range of governmental acts and the expulsion of members of Congress, the President, Vice President and justices of the Supreme Court. Also, a constitutional convention may be called pursuant to a successful petition.

To the extent that Articles VII, VIII, and IX would inhibit presidential and congressional ventures into unconstitutional territory, so much the better. Gridlock is good thing when it clogs Washington’s corridors of power.

The new Constitution also provides for secession, the threat of which might further help to preserve its original meaning. (more…)

Toward a Constitutional “Monarchy”

As I happened across The Monarchist (via Occam’s Carbuncle*), I remembered that I hadn’t staked out a place for monarchism in my post, “Parsing Political Philosophy.” I had meant to do so, but had second thoughts.

The place for monarchism is found in what I call radical-right-minarchism (R-R-M),

where “radical” means favoring the restoration of the Constitution to its original meaning. What sets R-R-M apart from other types of [minarchists] is their understanding that it is no longer possible to slay or tame Leviathan through electoral politics-as-usual, that the Constitution itself must be reinvigorated. (There are more radical alternatives, a military coup and secession, neither of which has much chance of success, and both of which could backfire. [Randy] Barnetts’s and my proposals would not, if adopted in the way outlined in the third through fifth paragraphs of Barnett’s article.)

Monarchism would be consistent with my idea of a new constitution, which includes, among many things, an Article VIII, Conventions of the States, which opens with this:

Delegations of the States shall convene every four years for the purpose of considering revisions to and revocations of acts of the government established by this Constitution. Such conventions (hereinafter “Convention of the States”) may revise and/or revoke any act or acts and/or any holding or holdings, in the sole discretion of a majority of State delegations present and voting.

Perhaps, instead of unreliable quadrennial conventions, we should have a constitutional “monarch,” to be called (more palatably) “Keeper of the Constitution.” The Keeper’s sole power and duty would be to veto unconstitutional acts of Congress, the executive branch (including “independent” regulatory agencies), and the Supreme Court — as and when such acts occur.

The Keeper, in other words, would be a fourth branch of the federal government — a sorely needed check on the other three branches, which have failed miserably to protect, preserve, and defend the Constitution.

The creation of a Keeper would do much the same thing as the establishment of quadrennial conventions: Push the federal government toward constitutional rectitude with the threat of embarrassing it by very publicly undoing its unconstitutional deeds.

The idea of adding a negatively omnipotent fourth branch raises several tough questions:

  • How should the Keeper be chosen?
  • How long should the Keeper be allowed to serve?
  • What if the Keeper vetoes an act that was in fact constitutional? In other words, who (or what) defends us against an errant or arrogant Keeper?

In answer, I conjure the following constitutional language, beginning with the duties and powers of the Keeper:

1. a. The responsibility for ensuring that the legislative, executive, and judicial branches adhere to this constitution in the exercise of their respective powers shall be vested in a Keeper of the Constitution. The Keeper may review acts of Congress, the executive branch, and judicial branch that have the effect of making law and appropriating monies. The term “making law” includes — but is not limited to — a legislative, executive, or judicial interpretation of an existing law or laws. Covered acts of the judicial branch include — but are not limited to — denials of appeals or writs of certiorari. The Keeper’s purview does not extend to declarations of war; statutes, appropriations, regulations, or orders pertaining directly to the armed forces and intelligence services of the United States; or the employment of the armed forces and intelligence services of the United States. Nor does the Keeper’s purview extend to appointments made by or with the consent of the legislative, executive, or judicial branches.

1. b. The Keeper may nullify any act that lies within his purview, as defined in section 1.a, provided that the act occurred no more than one year before the date on which he nullifies it. The Keeper shall signify each nullification by informing the speaker of the House of Representatives, president pro-tempore of the Senate, president of the United States, and chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of his decision and the reason(s) therefor. The Keeper shall, at the same time, issue a public notice of his decision and the reason(s) therefor. The affected branch(es) of government shall, in each case, act promptly to implement the Keeper’s decision. Each implementing act shall be subject to review, as specified in sub-section 1.a.

As for choosing the Keeper:

2. a. The speaker of the House of Representatives and president of the United States, acting jointly, shall nominate a Keeper of the Constitution to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court shall vote on a nominee no later than thirty days after receiving notice of a nomination. A nominee shall become Keeper upon the approval by three-fourths of the then-sitting justices of the Supreme Court.

2.b. If a nominee is rejected by the Supreme Court, the speaker and president, acting jointly, shall nominate a different person as Keeper, and shall send this second nomination to the House of Representatives and Senate. The House of Representatives and Senate shall, within thirty days of receiving notice of the nomination, meet as a single body to vote on the nominee. The nominee shall become Keeper upon approval by two-thirds of the total number of Representatives and Senators then present and voting.

2.c. If a nominee is rejected by both the Supreme Court and combined membership of the House of Representatives and Senate, the speaker and president, acting jointly, shall nominate a different person as Keeper, and shall send this third nomination to the Senate. The Senate shall, within thirty days of receiving notice of the nomination, meet to vote on the nominee. The nominee shall become Keeper upon approval by a majority of Senators then present and voting.

2.d. If the Keeper shall resign, die in office, or become unable to hold office because of a physical or mental condition attested to in writing by a unanimous panel of three doctors of medicine appointed jointly by the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president pro-tempore of the Senate, the president of the United States, and three-fourths of the then-sitting justices of the Supreme Court, a successor shall be appointed in accordance with the preceding sub-sections of this section 2.

The progressively easier method of choosing the Keeper provides an incentive for the Supreme Court to confirm the first nominee, rather than let the choice fall to the legislative branch. The provision for a third nomination is designed to ensure that the office won’t stand vacant.

I next address the term of office and related ways of keeping the Keeper “honest”:

3. a. The Keeper shall hold office during good behavior for a term of three years. The same person may not hold the office of Keeper more than once.

3.b. The Keeper may be removed from office only as follows: The speaker of the House of Representatives and president of the United States shall jointly apply to the Supreme Court of the United States for removal of the Keeper, specifying the instance(s) of official misfeasance or malfeasance that prompted their application. The Supreme Court, upon the receipt of such an application, and with due deliberation, shall vote on its merits. If  three-fourths of the then-sitting justices of the Supreme Court approve the application, the Keeper shall thereupon forfeit his office; otherwise, the Keeper then in office shall retain his position until a proper application for his removal is approved by three fourths of the then-sitting justices of the Supreme Court, or his term of office expires.

3.c. Upon removal of the Keeper from office by the foregoing procedure, a new Keeper shall be appointed, in accordance with the procedures of sub-sections 2.a, 2.b, and 2.c. Upon the appointment of a new Keeper, he shall enter upon a three-year term of office, which he may hold during good behavior.

Finally, some “housekeeping” details:

4. The Keeper shall be paid a salary of $1 per annum, but may be reimbursed for reasonable, personal expenses related to the execution of his duties. Congress shall appropriate monies for the reimbursement of the Keeper’s reasonable, personal expenses; for the reasonable compensation of the Keeper’s staff; and for the procurement, operation, and maintenance of  those facilities, equipment, and services that the Keeper and his staff may require for the execution of the Keeper’s responsibilities. The total cost of the foregoing shall not exceed $100 million per annum, which amount shall increase on the anniversary of the date of the adoption of this amendment by the same percentage as the most recent increase (if any) in cost-of-living adjustments to the pensions of veterans of the armed forces.

That’s my idea of a constitutional “monarchy” — one with real but limited power. Imagine the kind of person it would take to gain acceptance (or banishment) by three-fourths of the sitting justices of the Supreme Court (i.e., by seven of the nine). Even at the worst of times, constitutionally, I would expect there to be three or four justices on hand to ensure against the appointment of a pushover for the “living Constitution” –  which is not the Framer’s Constitution.

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* Now defunct and sorely missed.

Modernism in the Arts and Politics

David Friedman has a theory about the “modern” movement:

Suppose you are the first city planner in the history of the world. If you are very clever you come up with Cartesian coordinates, making it easy to find any address without a map, let alone a GPS—useful since neither GPS devices nor maps have been invented yet.

Suppose you are the second city planner. Cartesian coordinates have already been done, so you can’t make your reputation by doing them again. With luck, you come up with some alternative, perhaps polar coordinates, that works almost as well.

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don’t know where you are, you don’t even know what floor you are on.

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality—formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn’t worth looking at, modern music isn’t worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen’s, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.” As I wrote here:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

As it was in the arts, so it was in politics. Yes, there was sleaze before 1900, and plenty of it. But presidents, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court generally remained faithful to the Constitution, especially its restraints on the power of the federal government. Then along came populism and “progressivisism” — the twin pillars of political modernism in the United States — and down went liberty and prosperity.